EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Read Chapter One of “The Bone Garden” by Heather Kassner!

May 7, 2019

Heather Kassner’s The Bone Garden will be published in August 2019 – but we have a chance for you to preview this haunting fantasy (think Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book) RIGHT NOW! If you haven’t yet heard the buzz about this exciting debut, you can read a little about the novel’s premise below. Then, dive right into Chapter One of The Bone Garden!

Irréelle fears she’s not quite real. Only the finest magical thread tethers her to life―and to Miss Vesper. But for all her efforts to please her cruel creator, the thread is unraveling. Irréelle is forgetful as she gathers bone dust. She is slow returning from the dark passages beneath the cemetery. Worst of all, she is unmindful of her crooked bones.

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Chapter One: The Underside of the Graveyard

She descended into the basement, tasked with collecting the bones. In her hand, a single candle illuminated the way. It cast a small circle of golden light that pressed the deepest shadows into the corners.

Not that the dark bothered Irréelle. She could see quite well in even the blackest part of the night, and besides, she knew her way around the house by heart, especially this area so far beneath the floorboards. She carried the candle as much to guide her as to warm her, if only a little. Her gray smock dress was too thin for the chill of the cellar.

At the bottom of the staircase, she cupped her hand to guard the flame. A draft (that seemed to come from nowhere, but most certainly came from somewhere) blew cold against her face. It whispered through the white strands of her hair, surrounding her with the scent of earth and rot. She wrinkled her nose. Though she was accustomed to the dank, gloomy basement, it always smelled stronger after the rain.

Irréelle shivered in the enclosed space and reluctantly set the candle down on a stack of wooden crates crammed full of potatoes. She crossed the room, watching her shadow- self stretch ahead. It grew out of proportion to her actual limbs, even taller, even slimmer, her silhouette even more ill composed than her body.

She frowned. The shadow only reminded her of the bony points of her elbows and knees, and worse, the uneven lengths of her arms and the mismatched bones of her legs.

But there was nothing to be done about that except to snub her nose at the shadow.

When she reached the far wall, she placed her hands flat against the bricks, running them over the rough surface until her fingers found the appropriate indentations. Then she pushed down on the grooves as hard as she could. Within the wall, gears began to grind and click. She jumped back and watched as a hidden door groaned open. Beyond it, a long passageway stretched into the darkness. Irréelle could not see to the end.

She retrieved the candle and entered the tunnel. Although the ceiling was higher here, the space crowded tighter. If she held both arms out to the side, she would just be able to touch the walls with the very tips of her fingers.

At eye level along one wall, a shallow metal trough ran the length of the tunnel. She raised the candle, tipping it forward, and touched flame to liquid. The inky black substance at the base of the well ignited. It gave off the scent of tar as it burned, shooting forward in a line of orange flame like a flickering path of lanterns on All Hallows’ Eve.

She followed the light. The floor of the passageway sloped downward by the slightest degree the deeper she went underground. Here and there, the thin ends of tree roots poked through from above. She brushed them away as she would a cobweb, very carefully, undisturbed when they swept through her hair or grazed her cheeks.

She hurried along. Back upstairs, and likely none too patiently, Miss Arden Vesper was waiting for her.

Or more precisely, she was waiting for the bones.

Irréelle could not hear her pacing, of course, but she knew that was just what Miss Vesper would be doing. Striding back and forth across the hardwood floor, heels snapping, blue eyes flashing to the clock over the fireplace as it ticked out each second of Irréelle’s absence.

At last Irréelle reached the place where the passageway diverged. Six tunnels split off from the first, each of them shrouded in darkness. They branched in different directions, running in parallel lines to the rows arranged so neatly aboveground. Stemming from these passages were other tunnels and niches, outstretched like the thin, jointed legs of a spider holding very still in its web.

She entered the passage on the far left side. It was, perhaps, the oldest of them all, the ground more worn, the walls a little wider.

The maze of tunnels seemed endless, but Irréelle knew where each one led. She wandered through them the way she imagined other children wandered paths in a park. It was not so very different (so long as she pushed away thoughts of the trees and the sky and the fresh summer air). She turned right, then left, then right again, winding deeper into the earth. Here she had only the single candle to light the way and the tug of the bones, which she felt deep inside.

They reached out to her, recognizing her likeness. Their invisible touch was a peculiar feeling, a buzz of static, but so very gentle.

Illustrations by Matt Saunders

Ahead, candlelight shone upon a crumbling arch, the alcove half caved in and partially blocked by a thick root from what must have been an exceptionally old tree. It was a haunted place. The draft whispered here too, but more insistently, sweeping across her skin and begging for attention. It released a ghostlike sigh, thin and creaky with yearning, as if it searched for some way out and to the surface.

Very purposefully and very quickly, she passed by the opening. Still, she felt the tickle of ghostly fingers and their desire to draw her back. A chill ran down her crooked spine. Never once had she entered this passageway.

It is the wind snaking past, she told herself. Only it felt more like a cold breath against the back of her neck, and she did not want whatever lurked in the gloom to touch her.

Irréelle could not help but glance over her shoulder, watching as the darkness edged across the entrance with each step she took away from it. She felt much better when it was out of sight and she could no longer hear its murmuring.

It was a good thing she did not believe in ghosts, or else she would have certainly thought one lingered there.

She continued walking, mindful of her footsteps even when no one could see her. One stride was just a little bit longer than the other, but she took Miss Vesper’s good instruction to never let her see that awful limp again and trod more carefully ever after.

The bones hummed to her from every direction. There were so many of them here, and their familiarity warmed her.

She finally came to a stop just outside one of the many shallow recesses equally spaced along the passage. They were not quite twice her length. She lifted the candle to dispel the shadows.

Before her, in the flickering yellow light, was a coffin. It was one of many caskets from the cemetery above, exhumed from the earth from below. Its lid had long ago been removed, set just beside it on the ground. Candle aloft, Irréelle crossed over to the coffin and peered inside. A skeleton lay peacefully on a bed of tufted blue satin, eye sockets sightless, lower row of teeth missing, finger bones entwined. The folded hands rested upon the rose-printed dress still covering the rib cage.

Irréelle admired the bones, how long they had outlasted the life that once lifted them. She would never tire of visiting. Her own bones shivered beneath her skin as, soundlessly, the skeleton welcomed her.

“Hello,” Irréelle said, her voice quiet, ever respectful of the dead. “If you are accommodating, would you permit me to gather your bones?” She tilted her head, ear toward the coffin, and listened.

The skeleton said nothing. And although Irréelle had yet to receive a response to this question on any of her visits to the underside of the graveyard, she always politely asked for permission. She waited a moment longer, giving the skeleton time to consider the request.

When still it remained silent, she bowed her head and placed one hand over its bony fingers. They tingled with a warmth that had surprised her the first time but she understood quite well now. Acceptance. “Thank you. I promise to take only what I need.”

Then she put down the candle and dug her tools out of her pockets. She set her collection of small glass vials along the edge of the coffin, except for one. She uncorked this vial and snapped it into place in the long needlelike instrument in her hand, which she called the bone borrower (and which Miss Vesper called the extractor).

She knelt in the dirt beside the coffin. Being a rather small girl, there was just enough space for her to fit.

Leaning forward, she positioned the sharp tip of the bone borrower and pierced the skeleton’s skull. Although Irréelle knew it could not feel a thing, she was gentle and considerate of not leaving a mark. She sang softly to cover the faint whirring of the machine as it threaded beneath the surface, turning bone to dust. Soon, the vial filled with a fine white powder. She removed the vial from the bone borrower, capped it securely, and slipped it into her pocket.

She selected another vial and repeated the process on the skeleton’s brittle collarbone. Moving from head to toe, in just the order Miss Vesper had taught her, she gathered bits of bone as unobtrusively as she could. It took quite some time, as she worked with such care. When she was through, she stood, brushing the dirt from her knees. In her pockets, the vials clinked against one another, an assortment of dust from each classification of bone.

“Goodbye,” she said to the skeleton. “Thank you again.”

She walked back the way she had come, a little slower now as the path inclined. When she reached the main passageway, the fire she had lit still burned. The long line of orange flame led her back to the cellar. Once there, she pressed a small lever on the wall, which lowered a cover across the entire well and extinguished the fire.

Ducking through the doorway, she tapped the bricks behind her, pulling her fingers quickly away before the heavy door swinging shut could smash them. It aligned seamlessly with the wall again, sealing off the tunnels, as if they did not even exist.

The rest of the world knew nothing of them, just as it knew nothing of Irréelle. She took up such a small slip of space that she wondered if she left any imprint at all. Or if she was as unreal as the ghosts she did not believe in.

With a rather crooked gait, she ran ahead of her thoughts. They always got her into trouble, slowing her down when she should have been hurrying.
Up she went, climbing the steep, twisty staircase to the main floor of the house. Faster now, as if she could make up for her delay. From above, the door creaked open, and a sliver of light snaked down like lightning. With it came a gust of wind that blew out her candle’s trembling flame.

Outlined on the landing, a shadow spoke.

***

Brrr – is that a chill in your bones on this lovely spring day? If you’re like us, you won’t be able to stop thinking about The Bone Garden until you’ve had a chance to finish Irréelle’s story. You may have to wait until August for that wish to come true – but you can make the wait a little more bearable by preordering your copy here!